What’s In Your Bag, Graham?

I often get asked what’s in my bag.  I’ve already done a blog on what (not) to take backpacking, but I didn’t really get into the technical stuff, so here goes:

CAMERA: I use an old 2006 Sony HVR-A1(E) HDV camera. It takes mini-DV tapes, which are surprisingly easy to get anywhere on the road. The hand-held successors in this product line were mostly hard-drive cameras, which are fantastic, but in environments where things can go missing, humidity can affect drive heads and stuff is likely to suffer from knocks, tapes are a better idea than hard drives.

When I first started I used the top-mounted XLR mic plugged into the hot-shoe on the A1, but after a couple of weeks I ditched it – at arm’s length the A1’s inbuilt mic was just as good and in stereo.

I use a cheap Chinese-made 37mm wide-angle lens so my mug doesn’t take up too much of the screen when I’m holding the camera at arm’s length. The official Sony wide-angle one costs three times the amount and weighs three times as much, so I opted for the lighter, cheaper version. Works just as well.

Keeping things cheap, light and low-fi, I don’t carry an XLR mic, tripod, boom, clapperboard, track or even a dolly.

LAPTOP: I carry a (now very battered) Dell Latitude X1, which I bought off ebay for 200 quid. It’s one of the last 11.1” notebooks to include a 4-pin firewire input – essential for backing up my tapes off the A1. I then courier the tapes – the raw footage – to the production company. And, so far, I haven’t lost a tape (or deleted anything I wouldn’t want to be on television)!

I shoot everything in HDV, aka ‘half HD’ – 1440×1080 pixels per frame with rectangular pixels (full HD is 1920×1080 with square pixels). The TV show is edited in SD, don’t really know why. I edit my YouTube clips in SD, on my Dell laptop. I use a legal copy of Adobe Premiere, although to be honest I’m not really stretching the program much: you could probably get away with doing the same kind of thing on Windows Movie Maker.

BACKPACK: I use a Lowe-Alpine “Pax25” bag which I bought back in 2001. This bag has travelled to over 250 countries in that time and still hasn’t let me down. You can’t buy them any more. Ahh… they don’t make ’em like they used to!!

 

GPS: I use a little Sony GPS-CS1. It’s hardy as hell (it survived a dip in the Persian Gulf!) and does the job magnificently. Although it doesn’t like trains. It takes a single AA battery. I use rechargables and have a little gizmo for charging them via the USB on my laptop.

PHONE: I use the simplest cheapest Nokia I can find and I carry two of them, just in case. They’re fairly indestructible, the batteries last all year and Everyone’s got a Nokia charger and there’s a torch in the top!! Stick it, iPhone!!

 

IPOD: Talking of Rotten Apples, Lonely Planet kindly bought me an iPod Touch for Christmas. Yippee, I thought: I could put all my Lonely Planet books on it and easily read them as I go. A nightmare experience of trying to navigate the map of Baku, Azerbaijan at 5am when it was minus 5 put paid to that idea: the time it takes to refresh a pdf screen is painfully slow… we’re talking up to a minute just for one step (zoom or move) on a map. I stick with the real books and just use the iPod for music.

STILL CAMERA: I kind of regret not taking a better still camera, but my little Sony Cybershot does an adequate job of holiday snaps. A digital SLR would weigh too much and just be one more thing to worry about.

CABLES ETC: A 4-pin to 4-pin firewire, a couple of USB cables, a third-party all-in-one charge block for my still and video camera batteries, laptop power cable and a DC/DC converter for charging my laptop from the ciggie lighter of a car. Great for long bush-taxi rides!

 

SLEEPING BAG: I have a tiny Karrimor Global 700 Traveller Lite which packs down to the size of a small loaf of bread. Hardly ever use it, except when I’m on a bus and the air-conditioning is freezing my face off.

Right, that’s it. Apart from my Swiss Army Knife, a rather sparse first aid kit and mosquito net, I don’t use any other specialised kit, except for my fishing vest which I bought in Herat, Afghanistan. It’s got about 20 pockets and can hold two full bottles of whiskey in the lining. Lovely!!

Days 985-987: Saddle Up, People!

12.09.11-14.09.11:

The time for procrastination is over. Much of this year has been spent – some might say wasted – holding out hope for a yachtie to invite me onboard his vessel and whisk me away into the wild blue yonder for nothing more than the price of a few beers and a barrel of diesel. After being held on tenterhooks for 8 months (repeatedly being told that the yacht in question would be ready to go ‘in a few days’) I gave up that pipedream. I guess the old adage is a good today as it’s always been: if something sounds too good to be true…

So I cast my net out wider, appearing on TV here in Australia and on countless radio shows, always throwing in the ‘anyone up for an adventure?’ line (while trying not to sound too desperate, of course). I got a few backpackers wanting to join me, and a couple of delightful offers of dinner(!), but no red-blooded mariners quietly waiting on their sailboat willing to take a ginger landlubber like me for a high adventure on the high seas.

But now it’s too late: even if I found a willing skipper and a boat called “Unsinkable II” today, cyclone season kicks off in November and good luck getting insurance to be bobbing up and down on the silver seas when that happens. No… I’ve got to come up with another way of getting around the Pacific, in other words: I have to revert to Plan A. Cargo ships.

“Why didn’t you just do that in the first place YOU IDIOT?” I hear you cry. Well, given the choice between visiting all the Pacific Islands in a few months at no great cost or visiting them over the course of six months at great cost, it was always going to be the former.  Plus, look… I’ve been living with my girlfriend here in Melbourne and there aren’t too many relationships that could survive not seeing each other for two years – I’m not making excuses, I just wanted to take the path of least resistance, especially if that meant I could hang out here a while longer.

But now the time has come to GET REAL: the only way I’m going to get this journey finished is on board freighter ships, and one way or another I’ve GOT to get back on the horse.

The ticking clock never stopped. It’s not just my own personal drive to get this thing finished, it’s practicalities like my Aussie visa runs out on Sept 22, so I’ve got to make like a tree and get out of here. So, not being one to stand on ceremony, I’m heading back to Papua New Guinea next week. I’ll have to head over to Wewak and then make my way to Lae and then try my best to get on one of the ships that goes to The Solomon Island and beyond: either to Fiji, New Zealand or Australia.

Lorna, Mandy and I are busy talking to shipping companies and valiantly attempting to side-step the whole “we don’t take passengers” malarkey to get me passage. But the good news for you lot is that my bag is packed, I’ve got a stack of miniDV tapes in my jocks and I’m raring to go.

PNG to Oz
The Pacific Part 1: PNG to Oz - via The Solomons (Clicky for Biggie)

Days M20-M24: The Papuan Chief

17.10.11-21.10.11: Monday was spent at sea familiarising myself with the ship. Swire take their safety seriously: I’m not allowed out on deck unless I’m wearing a boiler suit and steel toe-capped boots. After a tour of the vessel (a 1991 Miho-Type freighter, 4 storage bays, 3 cranes, 9000HP, top speed 15.5 knots) I familiarised myself with the onboard bar “Ye Pracktickle Navigatore” and got up to speed with some of the editing and writing I’ve been putting off for months as the south coast of New Britain floated past the window.

On the Tuesday we skirted around the coast of New Ireland and arrived on the island of Lihir – home of the biggest goldmine in PNG. It’s a privately-owned port and I’d need a two-day induction to even step foot on dry land. A volcanic island located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the mining operation had stripped one side of a mountain and vents of steam gushed out from the boiling interior of the island like some vision of hell in what would otherwise be paradise.

But, you know, gold! Who doesn’t like gold eh? Just look at all the amazing things you can do with gold! You can call your mum, take photos, film your friends falling over, surf the web, read a book, find out the way to the nearest chippy using the latest GPS technology… oh, hang on: I’m thinking of an iPhone, aren’t I?

One good thing about the goldmine is that the native inhabitants of Lihir now have a nice new geothermic powerplant. One of the bad things is that the stevedores (the guys what work the docks) only work until 5.30pm… after that the swell gets too much and craning stuff off a ship turns into a massive game of conkers. Consequently, I and all the other crewmembers denied shore-leave were couped up on the ship for not one but two nights: we didn’t leave until the Thursday.

Although in another crowning moment of awesome, Captain Santos allowed me to steer the ship as we made our departure. Turbines were being cleaned down in the Engine Rooms, so we were only going at about 5 knots, but for a few minutes I was personally helming a vessel that weighs more than the Statue of Liberty. Captain Santos laughed; ‘now you know what to do if pirates kill everybody and you have to drive the ship.’

Graham Hughes Papuan Chief
Mind that massive reef!!! Oooooops...

Indeed.

On Friday we crossed the invisible border from Papua New Guinea into The Solomon Islands and headed towards Iron Bottom Sound: the graveyard of hundreds of WWII ships and planes lost in the battle for Guadalcanal. We’re heading to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Chief Engineer Dave has sprayed some WD40 on the pistons so we’re going to get there in record time – the last I heard we should be arriving at around 2pm local time tomorrow.

For a few moments we were close enough to an island to get a mobile phone signal. A text from Mandy arrived. ‘Gaddafi might be dead. Died from wounds.’ Captain Santos got on the Shipnet wires and confirmed the news. The Colonel is Fried Chicken. Another tyrant bites the dust. It never seems to end well for these guys, maybe they should have had better career guidance counsellors. I bet Syrian despot al-Assad will be sleeping with one eye open from now on.

25,000 Libyans died in the war to topple the Gaddafi regime. I dearly hope that tomorrow’s Libya is worthy of their sacrifice, but for now I say congratulations to the people of world’s newest democracy. Welcome back Libya.

Days M27-M32: Beyond The Coral Sea

24.10.11-29.10.11: And so I found myself becoming something of a fixture on board the good ship Papuan Chief. Breakfast (which I invariably missed) was served at 8am-9am, Lunch at noon and dinner at 6.30pm. If I wasn’t beavering away at the bar working on a video or a script or a rant, I’d be up on the bridge studying the shipping charts, learning how to use a sextant or just generally getting in the way of things.

This week has been all about the drill. We’ve had drills for fire, terrorism, oil spills… the ship’s six month inspection is due in Melbourne and Captain Santos wants all things to be ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. Literally. Seven short blasts followed by a long one means get your arse up to the bridge, Graham. A short, long, short, long, short and long means get to the Emergency Life Rafts and next time, do remember to pick up your immersion suit on the way, double-oh-Hughes.

The Coral Sea was rather mercurial. One day it was as flat as a supermodel, the next it was more choppy than Bruce Lee karate chopping a portion of pork chop chop suey. When the clouds came in on a quiet moonless night you could go out on the wing and look out towards nothing but inky blackness, squinting to make out where the sea ended and the sky began – not so impressive now with all our fancy GPS maguffins, but back in the day when there was nothing but a compass point and a flicking oil lamp to guide you, a buccaneers life was nothing if not perilous. For a speeded up version, close your eyes and go run through a forest.

To starboard lurked the Great Barrier Reef, for which we gave a wide berth, not just because of the obvious perils of scraping your way through the world’s largest living thing but also because the regulations on shipping anywhere near that area tighten up until you start singing soprano. But with the GBR out of the way, we were free to come in close to the coast: the hallowed mobile phone signal returning… one bar, two bars, three bars… it felt as if the world had returned. So dependent now, so linked in… a week without precious signal feels like punishment. By now it was Thursday.

The bad news is that I’d not heard anything back from the other shipping companies, so my proposed week-long stopover in Melbourne might again be indefinitely extended. For some reason, Customs and Excise are on my case, worried sick they are about the fact that back in February 2010 the camcorder I bought in the UK was fixed by Lonely Planet in Australia and sent back to me in the UK (during my 2010 visa run). It’s making somebody’s head melt, but to honest with you I’m not intending on returning to the UK for a good while yet, but if there’s a warrant out for my arrest, I’ll just keep travelling thank you very much. There’s some other odds and ends that need attending to, but lacking a full-time lackey to do my bidding, when Graham HQ is on radio-silence, not a lot can or will be done.

By Friday, the signal had gone as quickly as it came – all ties with the outside world severed once more. We passed the great city of Sydney, hovering like a magical kingdom a millimetre above the horizon… all grey and far away. Reminded me of my first glimpse of Kuwait City from the mighty Shat-al-Arab and made me stiffen my resolve to one day see Manhattan rise from the briny sea.

But we’re not stopping in Sydney, it holds no allure for us. In fact, unless you’re a yacht or a passenger ship, your chances of getting into Sydney harbour these days are remarkably slim: all the unsightly container vessels now come into Botany Bay or Newcastle. Someone should inform the architects of the Pompidou Centre: seal up your iPods, only mad enthusiasts want to see the inner workings.

And so on down the east coast of Australia, end to end. From 10 degrees south of the equator to 40 degrees. Each degree equals 60 nautical miles: that’s 1,800nm from tip to toe. Usually the Pap Chief trots along at a good 14.5 knots (nautical miles per hour), but heading south towards the Tasman Sea the current helps you along. At one point we were powering through the water at 17 knots. It seems slow to us with our Vauxhall Novas and our Castrol GTX, but without having to stop for rest stops, refuelling, traffic lights, roadworks, prostitutes and the like, we can cover some impressive distance and carry 981 lorries worth of stuff with just twenty crewmen and a skipful of diesel.

You know that all the diesel ships in the world could run off the disused chip fat from all the restaurants in the world?

If only…

I was talking to Jerry, the chief mate, about piracy (it’s a subject that comes up quite often on board cargo ships). Before the Somali pirates started making headlines in 2006, the bane of cargo crews everywhere were some other peace-loving ne’er-do-wells from Northern Sumatra in Indonesia who would routinely terrorise the Malacca Straits.

In 2004 Jerry was third mate on a tug boat, pulling a floating platform to Singapore from the Gulf of Aden. As it was a tug, it was going at about 5 knots making it an easy target for the pirates. With fishing ships all around them in what is also one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, there was nowhere to run to if things got messy. A fishing boat with an outboard motor sped past, then ran around the bow of the ship and headed back towards the bridge, this time brandishing AK-47s, M-16s and Rocket Propelled Grenades which they used to make Swiss cheese out of the wheelhouse.

The crew, completely outgunned, legged it to their cabins. After a tense half hour of gunshots, explosions and mayhem, the captain came over the intercom and told the entire crew to report to the bridge. Jerry and the other crewmembers did so. The pirates had taken the ship and proceeded to smash or shoot everything they could: the GPS, the radar, the radios, the windscreen. The captain was being held at gunpoint. The crew were instructed to go to their cabins and give the pirates all of their money, which of course they did. Eventually, once they had smashed everything worth smashing, the peaceful citizens of Aceh took the captain and the chief engineer hostage and departed the vessel, shooting up some more stuff on the way out just for good measure.

Suitably terrorised, the remaining officers managed to contact officials at Singapore and tell them what happened (note to would-be pirates: shooting the monitor does not generally kill the computer). They were asked if they could get any of their equipment up and running. Some of it, perhaps. Was the engine still going? Yes. Okay then: get to Singapore as quickly as you can. But Singapore was still two or three days away.

That night Jerry and the other crewmen couldn’t sleep. They all wanted to be on the bridge so they could keep a look out for any more pirates. But two different groups of pirates wouldn’t attack the same ship twice, would they?

Yes, yes they would.

The next day around noon another band of pirates took a swipe at the vessel. This time everybody ran to their hiding holes: supply cupboards, engine compartments, emergency storage units. There they waited for an hour until the sound of gunfire died down before they ventured out. The pirates must have taken the hint that the ship had already been attacked (the bullet holes in the windscreen possibly gave it away) and buggered off. But not before they smashed everything that the first lot missed.

Limping back to the nearest Malaysian port, the crew were relieved of duty and another tug was sourced to get the platform to Singapore. The captain and the chief engineer were released 22 days later, after a ransom of $100,000 had been paid.

The pirate operation in the Malacca Straits was all but wiped out by the Boxing Day Tsunami. Since then the good folk of Somalia have taken on the task of terrorising some of the most hard-working people in the world. Don’t forget, once you’re on a ship, you don’t get the weekend off. You don’t get Easter or Christmas or Melbourne Cup Day to go and see your family or get drunk with your mates. If you’re contracted for 6 months you work EVERY DAY for six months. Go interrupt the TGWU annual Foie Gras and Caviar Convention to tell them about that one.

And, to add insult to injury, thanks to those peace-loving terrorists (who may or may not hail from the same region of the planet as these piratey-types) all shore leave has been cancelled in many countries (including the USA) since 9/11.

Thanks a bunch, guys! Another home run for the forces of horribleness. Enjoy your time here on the good ship Planet Earth, feel free to ruin it for the rest of us.

But now it’s getting dark and the last light of the sun is dipping below the horizon. Beyond the Coral Sea lies the Tasman Sea which leads (if you’re following the Australian coastline) to the Bass Strait – the water which separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia. The Bass Strait has a reputation for tossing stuff around like they’ve made dwarf flinging an Olympic event. It’s not been too bad for us today, I only wish we had seen more whales. I saw one – a ruddy great big black one with a white stripe – jump out of the water and crash down on its back. SPLOSH! Apparently they do that to clean barnacles and parasites off their bodies. But it was far away and I didn’t have my camcorder going. Captain Santos says that last month was better – mating season. Whale porn.

It’s my last night on board the good ship Papuan Chief. I’ve enjoyed the company, the food, sitting with Chief Engineer Dave and putting the world to rights. Ronnie, the ship’s steward, has looked after me better than I could ever have imagined and everybody onboard has gone out of their way to make me feel welcome. I got to steer the ship, blow the airhorn and study the shipping charts. I wrote a lot, I edited a lot and I read a lot (the ship has its own library).

Earlier, I complained about not being connected with the outside world. It was more to do with the fact that I need to organise the next leg of my journey and that my envisioned time to do that in the Solomons was ripped from me. But I’ve got to say that if you’re thinking of writing the next Great American Novel but you get easily distracted by the internet, the news, crown green bowls and Countdown, then travel by cargo ship is definitely worth considering. It’s just you and 1,800 nautical miles of peace, quiet and pure imagination.

Day M221: Ping Pong King Kong Hong Kong

Sat 05.05.12:

It took a few days, but on the evening of Friday 4th May you could see the bright lights of Hong Kong from the bridge of the good ship MV Mell Sembawang. Congestion in the port meant we wouldn’t be coming alongside until the wee small hours of the following morning, but it did mean we would be treated to the most epic thunderstorm I have ever seen which was silently taking place over the city. Where the Mell Sembawang was circling like a plane waiting to land there was no rain, no wind and the sea was eerily still – something that seems to happen quite a lot in The Pacific, hence its name I guess.

And when I say this thunderstorm was epic, don’t think I’m exaggerating – this was a storm that could send ecliptics into a fit – strobe-like flashes were going off every second across a vast swathe of the sky. It was like an early 90s rave only far less depressing. I stayed up until way past my bedtime, but eventually I realised I couldn’t waste any more tape filming lightning for a Hammer Horror movie that I’m never going to make.

The next morning I said goodbye to Kenny, Arka, Captain Dagaman and the crew of the MV Mell Sembawang and wandered out onto the arena of scurrilous land-lubbers known as Hong Kong.

There’s no customs at the port so I just walked out, which seemed a bit odd. You know how much of a pain it is at the airport when they search your bags? Honestly, it’s more disquieting when they don’t search your bags – you start thinking well, if they aren’t checking me, who else aren’t they checking?! But I still needed an entry stamp as the lack of one can cause a real arse-ache when you want to leave.

So I decided to walk to the nearest train station. Hong Kong, like many modern cities, isn’t built with me in mind. It’s built around the needs and desires of cars. Which is probably why Ford Prefect thought cars were our dominant form of life when he first arrived on Earth. Now one thing you learn very quickly when you get to Hong Kong a) you are going to sweat like you’ve never swot before and b) being a pedestrian is the most foolhardy and frustrating experience you can imagine. After following the train line in the hope of a station for over an hour, over underpasses and under fly-overs, clambering over barriers like some crap (but infinitely more dangerous) version of The Krypton Factor, I gave up and decided to get a cab instead. But in this concrete jungle all the cabs were either full or just didn’t bother stopping, no matter how destitute I looked.

Eventually one stopped. I asked him to take me to Central Hong Kong Island. Bit of geography for you if you’ve never been to Hong Kong. Hong Kong, like Singapore, is an island. However, unlike Singapore, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region also incorporates the Kowloon Peninsular to the north. So you’ve kinda got the ‘mainland’ and the ‘island’. The port was on the ‘mainland’, I wanted to go to the ‘island’. I don’t know why I’m apostrophising those words, they’re absolutely valid.

But first I needed some Mad Moolah. Some Robert DeNiro. Some Wodger Wabbit. Some Baron Greenbacks. Some Johnny Cash. I told the driver and he took me to the nearest ATM – at the train station I was trying and failing to walk to. Ahh, this’ll do, I says. So onto Hong Kong’s rather excellent (and CHEAP!) underground system and under Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Central. But again it was Machines 1 Human 0 as I was forced to walk about 7 parsecs out of my way in order to get to the Government Pier building. I wished for the first time since I was a child that I had been born with wheels.

Eventually I made it to Government Pier and I went up to the 7th floor where the guy behind the counter looked a bit surprised to see me. He reckoned I was supposed to be chaperoned by the ship’s agent. I pointed out to him that the last two hours of my life would have been much more pleasant if he had done. Oh well, no problem, just give me my entry stamp so I can boogie on out of here. A couple of days ago I asked my mum to buy a cheap but fully refundable flight out of Hong Kong – I’ve done this a few times on the journey as you never know if they might ask for your ‘exit strategy’. But he wasn’t interested. I even tried to force the print-out into his hands – look! I’m leaving! Let me down the metaphorical gangplank! He didn’t give it a second glance. It was just Biff Baff Boom and I was stamped in for a whopping six months. NICE. Hear that America? SIX MONTHS!! For FREE!!!! Go stick your ‘visa waver’ bollocks up ya bum.

Next things next, and I had to meet with the sterling chap who had agreed to take me under his wingdings for the next few days. On this occasion, it was a guy called Michael from America. Works for Bloomburg by day, a stand-up comedian by night. We met at the Western Market, a fine old brick building from the 1800s, a metal roof held up by cast-iron beams. Was in constant use until 1988, then defunct for a while, then lovingly brought back to life, presumably by Griff Rhys Jones. People used to sell fish here. Now people get married here. Could you imagine in 100 years time people getting married in ‘that wonderful old Asda supermarket’? No. Neither can anyone. Because everything we as humans build these days is shit. But then you know that because you live in the world.

Michael had a surprise for me – a receipt from the post office for MY NEW HAT! My delightful (and extremely patient) Mandy had bought me a new one and sent it over to Hong Kong while I was on the Mell Sembawang. So we popped over to the nearby mail depot and picked it up. SMART!

After dropping my stuff off at Michael’s gaff, we headed out, accompanied by Michael’s other CouchSurfer (cos one just ain’t enough!) for some lunch. It being my first time in China for 18 months, we thought we’d treat ourselves to some Japanese sushi. We travelled the length of north Hong Kong island on the fabulous skinny little double-decker trams that are – seriously – over 100 years old. Costing only 23 pence (30 cents) for a trip of any distance, these wooden-sided trolley-cars are the most cost effective public transport in the world (being crammed into the back of a pick-up truck in West Africa with a bunch of dead goats is not what I’d call ‘cost effective’!).

After lunch, I scooted off to the nearby library to write to some more shipping firms to beg them to allow me on their ships going to Sri Lanka. Afterwards, Michael and I met up before heading out to Wan Chai – the go-go girl capital of Hong Kong – to visit Stuart Jackets, the owner of the Queen Victoria Pub. Stuart had kindly invited me along and – let this be a warning to you all – if you invite me over to your place I have a very bad reputation for turning up.

Stuart was an absolute legend. Not only did he supply Michael and I with free booze all night, he contacted his mate in the shipping industry and on Monday I have a meeting with him at his office. Who said nothing great was ever achieved down the pub, eh?

Thanks Stuart! A banner link for The Queen Vic will be added soon!!

That night, since it was my first time back in China for so long, I had lasagne for dinner. In a British pub.